By Tonya Kowalski from Washburn University School of Law
In this recent Journal of Higher Education article, the authors examine the parallels between online and offline literacies for insights into student preparedness, particularly for disadvantaged students. The theoretical framework and research findings have implications for law student readiness as well. The brief description that follows attempts to translate the article into lay language, and thus will understandably lack some of the nuance and precision conveyed by terms of art from the field, including key concepts from the “new literacies theory” and sociocultural literacy research generally.
In their study, the authors assigned 91 students in a summer academic success program to create online social media profiles. The assignments included posting academic essays, as well as expressing identity through profile images and curation of appropriated text and images. The study was designed to examine online literacy in key areas that are theoretically parallel to traditional writing skills, including thesis formulation, argumentation, and attribution. For example, the ability to reduce an argument to visual form is arguably akin to the ability to hone an effective thesis statement. In addition, curation skills relate to research skills such as sifting for relevance and then synthesizing relevant information, and “performance” skills correlate to the ability to shift identities for different genres and discourse situations.
The researchers found that most of the students lacked proficiency in online persuasion skills, and they question whether addressing that skill set may also help address similar problems in traditional writing and in academic performance. (Theoretically, both parallel skill sets result from a more general, underlying skill set.) For example, most of the students had difficulty showing higher levels of proficiency in expressing identity through profile images, showing clear connections between identity and curated content, and writing appropriately for a small variety of discourse communities.
In law school and practice, a great deal of our work now occurs online, and also requires novices to take on a professional identity and several new writing genres. The amount of legal research material now available digitally is truly vast, taxing even very skilled researchers’ resources. Thus, the question posed by these researchers is germane to legal education as well, and not just to faculty in legal writing programs. To what extent do we assess students’ digital competence before we expose them to advanced research and reasoning problems, and to what extent must we address the deficiencies we find there?
NOTE: Due to copyright protections, the full text of the article cannot be linked here, but should be obtainable at no cost through almost any faculty member’s university library account. Typically the process is to search for the journal title in the online library catalog, click on the database subscription link for that journal and year of coverage, and then locate the volume and issue.